Looking Young - Forever

THEY'RE changing more than the guard at Buckingham Palace this month, and the Queen is not altogether pleased. Last week a new five-pound note went into circulation, bearing the first updated portrait of Her Majesty in more than 20 years. Unlike the previous portrait, made when the Queen was in her early 40s, the new likeness reveals wrinkles, bags under the eyes, and a double chin.

``I look so old,'' the Queen reportedly told portrait artist Roger Withington, who designed the note. But a Bank of England spokesperson defended the drawing, saying it shows that the Queen has ``aged gracefully.''

Aging gracefully is an ideal that is becoming both easier and harder to achieve. On the one hand, fashions, cosmetics, nutrition, and exercise make it possible to create the illusion of time standing still, at least for a while. But on the other hand, the demand to look forever young covers longer and longer stretches of time.

A few years ago Gloria Steinem tossed off birthday compliments by saying, ``This is what 50 looks like.'' But today even Ms. Steinem's brand of midlife youthfulness would seem conservative. Until recently a woman would have considered herself a winner if she could fool people by looking five years younger. Today the game involves trying to fool the public by a whole generation. Mothers are supposed to look like their daughter's older sister.

As a saleswoman at a prestigious dress salon in Boston told a Boston Globe reporter last week, ``I know women of 50 who look like 30. They have adorable little figures, sizes 4s and 6s, and they'll definitely wear tights and short skirts in Boston come fall.''

This demand to maintain a youthful appearance gets subtly - and not so subtly - reinforced in other ways as well. A cosmetic product called Youth Lift, for example, advertises that ``... it doesn't matter how old you are. It only matters how old you look.''

That might have been the underlying philosophy of beauty that drove The New York Times to editorialize this spring that Greta Garbo ``was wise to quit [her film career] before time had started wearing at her face.''

It might also explain the attitude of John Silber, president of Boston University. As a Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts, Dr. Silber has come under fire recently for comments that appeared in the campus newspaper in 1987. ``There's not very many years that a woman is a beautiful girl,'' he was quoted as saying. ``Those years may be, say, roughly from 15 to 25 - 10 years, that's not a long time.''

Even women in that age category find the pursuit of beauty and artificially created physical perfection starting earlier and earlier. What does it say about our changing cultural fantasies that some Miss America contestants now submit to nip-and-tuck surgical procedures to improve their chances of winning the crown?

For people of all ages, in fact, plastic surgery has become ``the latest fashion accessory,'' according to W. The glossy biweekly reports that women actually flaunt their face lifts, tummy tucks, and lip injections, even going so far as to discuss them over lunch.

Please pass the salt - and a mirror.

Although the burden of maintaining an appearance of perennial youth falls most heavily on women, men now make up nearly a third of the approximately four million people who underwent plastic surgery in 1988, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery.

One Philadelphia cosmetic surgeon, Julius Newman, told an interviewer in Washington that many of the 40 to 50 procedures he performs on men each week can be attributed to the high divorce rate. ``A man 50 or 60 wants a 30-year-old woman,'' Dr. Newman said. ``They all tell me, `You've got to make me look younger.'''

When will men and women alike learn that ``aging gracefully'' implies other kinds of beauty not available at sweet 16?

``Beauty is only skin deep'' - this may be the last and wisest word on the subject. But it is also one of the most widely ignored of truisms, disbelieved by commoners and queens alike - and not just beauty queens.

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